Suhana Gordhan. Picture: ALISTAIR NICOLL

Suhana Gordhan. Picture: ALISTAIR NICOLL

After leaving Durban for Johannesburg to study and then take up a stint at a large advertising agency, new Loerie Awards chair Suhana Gordhan almost left what she found to be a "harsh, cruel industry" for good.

Fifteen years later, Gordhan has a position of influence that she intends using to help correct some of the persistent failings of the local advertising industry, most notably a lack of gender and racial transformation.

"It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was male-dominated and not a very nurturing environment to someone straight out of college. I went back to Durban to do some dancing with my old company, and went to live in Australia for a year. I came back to SA ready to give it another go," Gordhan says.

Moving into a small agency environment at King James helped, she says. And a move to Black River FC in 2007 was a changing point for Gordhan, who began working as a copywriter on the Nando’s account which culminated in a Loerie Grand Prix award for the Last Dictator Standing commercial.

"I did the most learning and growing there. I was promoted to creative director."

After five years at Black River Gordhan sought new challenges, specifically in an attempt to get to grips with how technology and the digital realm were changing advertising. She says the local industry adapts to technology but is still too focused on the technology itself as a feature, rather than simply using it as a tool.

This, Gordhan says, was one of the big lessons she brought back from her first year judging at Cannes. Analysing international-quality advertising taught her that what wins awards is true creativity where the technology is employed as a tool in novel ways. "We need to get to that level — we need to catch up."

In her role at the Loeries, where Gordhan has already been a board and committee member since last year, she is determined to further grow representation on not only the judging panel but in the industry at large. Female industry participants in particular, she says, are lacking mentorship and role models.

Part of the disconnect lies between school and tertiary education levels, where specialised advertising education is far too expensive, she feels. The other problem is a failure to meet the expectations of millennial graduates who join what Gordhan says are outdated and silo-type agency business models that don’t take advantage of the millennial mindset of being multiskilled.

Now back at a large agency, FCB, Gordhan identifies the pitch process and deteriorating relationships between client and agency as two of the industry issues that need to be sorted out. Solid relationships, rather than what feels like simply a supplier relationship, foster the best work, she says.

"I don’t have an immediate path from here, but I don’t feel like checking out any more. Because there’s so much conversation about what’s wrong in the industry, it’s exciting to be part of that change. The Loeries role has given me some potential to do that."

This includes backing the Loeries’ recent moves to include more award submissions from the African continent, which Gordhan feels is a necessary part of the awards’ evolution.